Boston

Gerry Bergstein

Thomas Segal Gallery

This stunning exhibition of 14 paintings, all completed in 1991, reveals a new cohesiveness and maturity in Gerry Bergstein’s work. Known for his manic, tragicomic narratives, the artist here exchanges romantic symbolism for a kind of surrealism in beautifully colored and rendered still lifes. Bergstein has, at least temporarily, relinquished his ironic tongue-in-cheek titles; all but one painting, Entropy #4, 1991 (a huge canvas laden with fruits and vegetables positioned against what looks like a dark promontory), remain untitled. Although his characteristic bald, bearded visage is absent from this work, Bergstein’s melancholic persona is evident in each rhapsodic painting, ranging from the tiny image of a single autumn leaf to heroically scaled canvases bearing literally hundreds of pieces of fruit and vegetables. This latest series is a very personal meditation on bounty and emptiness, death and regeneration. It is also a tour de force of painterly illusionism.

Bergstein’s canvases and drawings are not mere portrayals of produce and leaves but are, rather, “portraits” of trompe l’oeil paintings of still lifes, rendered on torn and decaying canvas and paper. Deliciously colored fruit and vegetables, painted with fantastic exactitude, meld with a scattering of abstract linear renderings of fruit against a gray-black cubist backdrop. In these contemporary vanitas still lifes, pockmarked images of bounty are juxtaposed with withering autumn leaves on disintegrating grounds. Bergstein imitates the luscious chiaroscuro and thin glazes of old master painting, yet he simultaneously demonstrates that he is not creating a mirror of nature. Realist images are counterbalanced by spattered and dripped wax and oil grounds, which have been scratched into, rubbed, and wiped with turpentine. Bergstein, like a post-Modern William M. Harnett, combines a disturbing degree of realism with strong abstract arrangements of forms, to evoke an air of unsettling mystery and nostalgia. Appropriated equally from life, from his imagination, and from details of reproductions of paintings by Caravaggio, Giuseppe Arcimboldo, and others, Bergstein’s produce is inedible. Some catapult precariously off of the page into the viewers’ space.

As the abundance of nature cannot be permanently fixed by the artist’s craft, artifice itself becomes the subject of his new work. A small, rectangular canvas is symbolically pierced by a centrally located, black, womblike hole. The prominent absence, which reads like an empty portrait, is wreathed with eight aging, dark maple leaves. Floating symbols of fertility—a meticulously rendered pomegranate, an eggplant, an apricot, a plum, and oranges—swirl in a metaphysical whirlwind over a grayed-black scraffitoed ground. A leafless branch, built tip of thick layers of oil and gel medium, is the sole object that takes on actual physical dimension; it, too, punctuates and animates the speckled dark void.

Bergstein originally planned to call his latest group of paintings “Tissues of Lies.” These unsettling works are lamentations on the inconstancy and mutability of things that also bear witness to the artist’s love of beautiful painting.

Francine Koslow Miller